Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun inhabits the early life of aviator Beryl Markham so astutely that it should prompt readers to immediately seek out Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, to learn the rest of her story. McLain, best known for her novel The Paris Wife, captures Beryl Markham’s childhood and early adult years honestly and compassionately. As a child growing up motherless and relatively untended in early twentieth-century Kenya, Beryl Clutterbuck learned to survive in a brutal land by observing her friend Kibbii and his tribe and her father’s training of racehorses. Her affinity for animals became both the thing that saved her and that which almost destroyed her as was the instance when a lion attacked her when she was twelve.
“I knew I had no chance at all. He would eat me here or drag me off to a glade or valley only he knew of, a place from which I’d never return.  The last thought I remember having was This is how it feels then. This is what it means to be eaten by a lion.” 

When her father has to sell the farm and relocate, then 16-year-old Beryl marries out of desperation to stay in her beloved land. McLain’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape and her objective rendering of young Beryl’s spicier activities keep the novel from devolving into a titillating soap opera as does the telling of the tale through Beryl’s own, resolute voice.

“When the March rains fell over the plains and the ragged face of the escarpment, six million yellow flowers cracked open all at once. Red-and-white butterflies, the ones that looked like peppermint sticks, flashed in twists against the sparkling air.
But in 1919, the rains didn’t come. Not the soaking spring storms when one inky cloud could levitate for hours spilling everything it had, and not the short daily November rains that winked on and off as if they ran on a system of pulleys. ”

As the youngest horse trainer ever licensed in Africa who leads several horses out of obscurity and previous injury to the winning of top races, Beryl befriends Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa) and falls in love with Blixen’s lover, big game hunter, Denys Fitch Hatton. She’s also linked with the visiting Edward, the Prince of Wales, and his brother Henry, in a flirtation that further mars her spotty reputation. Beryl’s romantic liaisons and marriages propel the story and keep it fresh while showing both her emotional fragility and growth.

McLain bookends Beryl’s story with her view from the cockpit as she soars and sputters across the Atlantic in her legendary 1936 solo flight thus allowing the reader to enter into both her journey and the reasons she was in the air. McLain’s Author’s Note is the perfect ending to the novel as it answers many of the questions that this reader simply had to know immediately. When McLain writes “Beryl was undoubtedly complicated – a riddle. a libertine. a maverick. a sphinx.” I nodded my head in agreement as I felt I knew Beryl Markham very well and agreed with McLain wholeheartedly. 

It's rare for both Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly to give their coveted star to such an accessible novel. That they did is a tribute to both McLain's powerfully evocative writing and to her ability to connect Markham's story with the average reader. I too give this five stars. When I read Circling the Sun I felt the heat of the African sun, I saw the ocean below me, I watched as banded colobus monkeys climbed through burlap sacking covered windows, I tasted the licorice and pear candies sent from England to compensate for Beryl's mother's abandonment, and I lived young Beryl's life. 

Summing it Up: Lions, poisonous snakes, mountains, airplanes, love affairs, and more invigorate the sweeping African landscape as Paula McLain’s portrait of young Beryl Markham soars above the changing land and mores of the early twentieth century. Read this book for a superbly written view of an amazing woman who did things 100 years ago that very few would attempt today. I thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife, but I adore Circling the Sun. 

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Pigeon Pie (Historical Fiction), Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: July 28, 2015
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